You Tried to Reconstruct the Crime Scene With a Handful of Clues*

ReconstructionPolice detectives and other sleuths use a lot of different strategies and techniques for solving cases. And of course, each case is a bit different and requires a different approach. One of the approaches detectives take is reconstructing the crime. By that I don’t mean just going to the crime scene. I mean replaying the events of a crime, sometimes with the suspects and witnesses reprising their roles. It’s a staple of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, but you even see it in some modern novels. 

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once that it’s possible to solve a crime by simply sitting in one’s chair and thinking. But he’s not averse to going to the scene of a crime and reconstructing the events of it. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one evening. In the Golden Age tradition, there are several suspects, each of whom had the motive and opportunity. But the most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who had a serious quarrel with Ackroyd over money, and who disappeared shortly after the murder. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent and wants to clear his name. So she asks Poirot to investigate. At one point, after learning that Flora went to her uncle’s study to say goodnight just before he was murdered, Poirot asks Flora and family butler Parker to replay that incident:

 

‘‘One moment,’ cried Poirot, raising his hand and seemingly very excited. ‘We must have everything in order. Just as it occurred. It is a little method of mine.’
‘A foreign custom, sir,’ said Parker. ‘Reconstruction of the crime they call it, do they not?’ He was quite imperturbable as he stood there politely waiting on Poirot’s orders.
‘Ah! he knows something, the good Parker,’ cried Poirot. ‘He has read of these things. Now, I beg you, let us have everything of the most exact. You came from the outer hall – so. Mademoiselle was – where?’
‘Here’ said Flora, taking up her stand just outside the study door.
‘Quite right, sir,’ said Parker.
‘I had just closed the door,’ continued Flora.
‘Yes, miss.’ agreed Parker. ‘Your hand was still on the handle as it is now.’
‘Then allez,’ said Poirot. ‘Play me the little comedy.’’

 

As we learn, Poirot has a very specific reason for wanting to reconstruct this scene. 

In Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy, journalist Nigel Bathgate is feeling restless one rainy evening and on impulse, visits a local religious group House of the Sacred Flame. While he’s there, he witnesses an unusual ceremony. At the height of it, one of the participants Cara Quayne suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison that’s been placed in a chalice used in the ceremony. The only likely suspects in the case are the other participants and their religious leader Jasper Garnette. Bathgate calls in his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Alleyn puts the machinery of law in motion. One of the questions raised is how anyone could have poisoned the chalice from which the victim drank. So Alleyn has several of his people, including Inspector Fox and Bathgate, take the places of the worshipers to reconstruct the murder. That exercise shows Alleyn how the crime could have been committed without anyone seeing. And in the end, it helps him to figure out who would have wanted to kill the victim. 

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is in part the story of the murder of a postman Joseph Higgins. He accidentally breaks a leg and is taken to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. During what’s supposed to be a routine operation, Higgins suddenly dies. At first his death is put down to tragic accident and Inspector Cockrill is assigned to handle the investigation and routine paperwork. But Cockrill isn’t satisfied that Higgins died accidentally, and Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. So Cockrill begins a more thorough investigation. Then another patient, also with a fracture, is scheduled for surgery. One of the medical staff Esther Sanson has gotten very attached to this particular patient and is worried about what will happen to him. Cockrill assures her that he’ll be attending the surgery so that he can see that all goes well. The surgery turns out to be very close to a complete reconstruction of Higgins’ murder, since this patient also nearly dies on the table. Cockrill is able to see exactly what happens in surgery and he uses that knowledge to find out who killed Higgins and why. 

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at a dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The not-very-hidden agenda is that the evening will provide an opportunity for some of the young women of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It’s hoped that by mixing with members of the ‘better class,’ these women will learn how that class does things, and perhaps even meet young men. During the evening, one of the Grantham House guests tells Goodwin that another guest Faith Usher has brought cyanide with her and intends to use it to commit suicide. Later, Faith does in fact die of cyanide poisoning and everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat. But Goodwin isn’t. So despite a great deal of pressure to let the case go, Goodwin and Nero Wolfe investigate. Part of that investigation is a reconstruction of the last few moments of Faith Usher’s life. In typical Wolfe style, he has several people who were there come to the famous brownstone, where things are laid out the way they were on the fatal evening. The reconstruction is very helpful in showing exactly how the victim was poisoned. 

Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force uses reconstruction of the crime in H.R.F. Keating”s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. He’s just been promoted to the rank of Inspector when he gets an odd assignment. Sir Rustom Engineer, head of the Crime Branch of the police force, asks Ghote to do him a personal favour. He’s had a letter from an old friend Robert Dawkins, whose wife Iris recently committed suicide. Dawkins wants to know why she would have taken her life, and Engineer asks Ghote to go to Mahableshwar and investigate. Ghote isn’t happy about leaving his wife Protima, who’s about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t feel he has a choice. So he travels from Bombay to Mahableshwar to look into the case. It’s not long before Ghote begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins was murdered. If she was, the question of course is who killed her? Finding the answer to that question is difficult, since no-one very much wants to cooperate with Ghote. But in the end he finds out the truth. And part of what leads him to the answer is a reconstruction of the crime. He goes to Dawkins’ home and quite literally walks through each step of the crime, taking different people’s roles as he goes. It’s a very interesting approach to finding out whodunit. 

And then there’s Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With, the first of her NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series. Harald and her assistant Detective Tilden are called to Vanderlyn College when the Art Department’s deputy department chair Riley Quinn is poisoned. Quinn had made his share of enemies in and out of the department, so there’s no lack of suspects. And part of the process of investigating this crime is looking into each suspect’s background and tracing each suspect’s movements. But that doesn’t completely answer the question of how the killer managed to poison Quinn. The poison was administered in a cup of coffee that department secretary Sandy Kepler brought from the cafeteria back to the department’s main office. That cup was among others that were left together within easy reach of a number of people. Because there were several people in the office at the time the poison was put into the coffee, Harald and Tilden decide to reconstruct the crime to see where everyone was and who could have put the poison into the coffee cup. That reconstruction makes it possible for Harald to see exactly how the deed was done. 

And that’s really the main purpose of reconstruction. Reenacting a crime can help the sleuth to see clearly how one or another person could commit a crime without being noticed. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, Sherlock Holmes fans), but hopefully they’ll help you reconstruct what I mean.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Stephen Bruton’s Dogs May Bark.  

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, H.R.F. Keating, Margaret Maron, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

28 responses to “You Tried to Reconstruct the Crime Scene With a Handful of Clues*

  1. My fave Agatha Christie of all time – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There’s an app i’ve seen for ipad etc that’s called crime scene maker. You take a picture and then build your crime scene. I’ve no idea who thought of the app, but I’ve used it when planning fictional scenes in my stories. I wonder what Poirot would have made of that.(That probably makes me sound like a crazy woman). Here’s a Youtube if you’re interested.

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=-4i5TnaxumE&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D-4i5TnaxumE

    • D.S. – Thank you for that link! What a great app for crime writers! I’m going to have to check that video out. And no, you’re not crazy at all. You’re a crime writer. That’s what crime writers do. I agree with you, by the way, that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a terrific novel. Such a great whodunit and of course, Christie ‘broke the rules’ with that. Still, it’s brilliant.

  2. I don’t often read this kind of crime novel anymore but it was fun trying to out think the writer and detective when I did. It took me a long time to discover I am not really a puzzle person.

    • Patti – It’s interesting how a lot of writers have moved away from that sort of crime novel. I think you have a point that some people are ‘puzzle people’ and some have other tastes.

  3. I particularly like Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide (AKA Remembered Death I think) in which someone dies at a celebratory party at a night club. On the anniversary of this horrible event, the sorrowing widower organizes a re-run – we readers know that someone isn’t going to survive the evening… None of it is remotely believable, but I like the symmetry of this one.

    • Moira – Oh, that is a great one. I’m sure that you knew, too, that it was adapted from an earlier Christie short story Yellow Iris. Interestingly Poirot features in the short story but not in the novel. There are some other changes too. It’s actually a really interesting instance of how one adapts one’s own work.

  4. I haven’t read one that tries to reconstruct the crime scene for a long time. I think it’s time to reread the The Murder of Roger Ackroyd!

    • Pat – It’s not an approach you see very often and sometimes it can come across as stilted. But sometimes it’s just excellent. And I’m always one to recommend a re-read of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. :-)

  5. Fascinating stuff Margot – of course there are also examples where this doesn’t help and even makes the detective get things wrong I recently re-read Asimov’s The Caves of Steel where the detective keeps trying to recreate the impossible crime and keeps failing! he does get it right in the though, thankfully …

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. You make such a good point too that reconstructing a crime doesn’t always give the sleuth the answer. Sometimes (and Caves of Steel is a great example!) it takes another kind of thinking. A good argument for the sleuth having more than one ‘tool’ in the ‘toolkit.’

  6. Gosh Margot, I missed a few important words here! I meant to say that he did get it right in the end … apologies for the typos, as always :)

  7. Margot: Most trials are a re-creation of the crime using words and the occasional demonstrative evidence.

    Michael Connelly in The Brass Verdict has Mickey Haller effectively demonstrating what really happened in the murder.

    Going back into classic mysteries,The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson, even has a diagram on the older covers of the book showing the layout of the building.

    • Bill – I hadn’t thought about it when I was preparing this post, but you’re right; there is such a thing as a verbal reconstruction. And it serves a very similar purpose in the sense that as a jury listens to the testimony, the members can mentally place everyone and decide if the accused could have and would have committed the crime. That’s a realy fascinating perspective – thanks. Thanks also for mentioning the diagram in The Judas Window. Diagrams are used in several of the crime novels of that era, but not as much as they were. I sometimes find them quite helpful.

  8. I loved ‘Green for Danger’ and I keeping meaning to read more of Christiana Brand’s books. I have London Particular on my shelf which O think I need to dig out.

    • Sarah – I know what you mean. There are a lot of authors like that (authors whose work I want to follow up on) that I haven’t (yet) done. If you do get the chance to read London Particular I’ll be interested to know what you think of it.

  9. Col

    Time to dig out Roger Ackroyd, I think

  10. “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is a perfect example here but I think Poirot is forever reconstructing the crime in his mind. I also think that when a detective retraces his steps, so to speak, he is actually reconstructing the crime.

    • Prashant – You make a very well-taken point. There are many, many cases where Poirot goes over a crime in his mind and tries to see who was doing what when. And as you say, he’s hardly the only one who does that. I think it’s a way sleuths have of making sense of the crime.

  11. You have named several books I have enjoyed: Green For Danger, Champagne for One, and One Coffee With. I do enjoy scene reconstructions…

  12. As you say, Margot, a lot of classic and Golden Age mysteries certainly make use of reconstructing the crime – you mention Christie, Marsh, Rex Stout among others. Let me add Anthony Berkeley’s “The Silk Stocking Murders,” where the reconstruction proves to be very dangerous – and ultimately conclusive in showing how a seemingly impossible murder really was committed.

    • Les – Thanks for filling in that gap. Berkeley set up some terrific fictional murders, and that’s most definitely one of them. And it’s a good reminder to be careful if you’re going to reconstruct a crime.

  13. as a cleaner of crime scenes, I found your blog insightful and entertaining.

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